This is my 23rd cruise, (crossings not included) and my 4th on HAL. I've done a variety of cruise lines from Carnival to Crystal, the most recent being a Panama Canal trip on the Celebrity Mercury in January.
Embarkation: The commute to the ship was a grueling 7-minute drive from my home. I could have made it in 6 minutes, but there was a red light. I arrived at Pier 91 at 1:15pm, and I kid you not was onboard by 1:30pm. The longest and slowest line I encounter was for the welcome aboard picture, which I by-passed.
The Crowd: It is summer, school is out and it was a diverse crowd. Seniors, toddlers, teenagers, large family groups, everything and everyone were represented. Any thought that the Lido (covered) pool was adult only was abandoned immediately. The place reverberated with the screams and laughter of children. It was so chilly in the aft pool area that they had to go somewhere, and I'm not that much of a curmudgeon that I would deny them their fun. If you want a less kid (verses kid-less) cruise book before the end of May or in September when school is in session.
Stateroom, Public Rooms, Condition in General: The Zaandam is not a new ship. Are there loose carpet seams here and there and a bit of wear and tear? Yes. Is it tired and dirty? No way. The ship has great flow, attractive public areas, fantastic art and is extremely comfortable with cushy and inviting furniture throughout. Of special note, the mattress in my cabin wasn't a thin piece of foam over a plastic platform (like the Mercury for example) it was a real, honest to goodness thick mattress. My stateroom was functional and clean and kept that way by my stealthy room attendants.
Food: My expectations were in check due to a lot of comments about the decline in the quality of HAL's food from the Boards. I'm a foodie and to be honest can be critical of sub-par food and service. With all that said, I thought the food was good to excellent throughout the cruise. I tend to lean more towards beef and chicken so take that into account. The portions aren't huge in the dining room, but with 5 courses they shouldn't be. If that is a concern just order an additional entrEe and the waiters will gladly comply. The service in the dining room was professional and appropriate. The food in the Lido was equally a pleasant surprise.
Entertainment: More "ugh" than "awe". Quality entertainment at night on the Zaandam was not so easy to find.
The Showroom: I've learned never to expect much from the Production Shows on a cruise. The ships don't pay enough to get top tier talent, the stage isn't big enough, and the production values (props, costumes and special effects) are about squeezing one more season out of what is already paid for then investing in anything new or fresh. HAL exceed my expectations, but probably not the way they intended. The Production Shows were so tired, cheesy, poorly danced and sung I had to wonder if I was missing something. Was this a parody of a production show? The Headliners, a musician billed as a young Kenny G (is that a compliment?) and magician/comic did provide some good moments and was worth checking out. A most welcomed surprise.
Lounge Acts: The Zaandam has beautiful Lounges but less than half the Lounge bands were competent and entertaining. Additionally, kudos to the D.J. in the Crows-Nest who always seemed to find the right songs to get people out of their seats and on to the dance floor. From there it falls off the face of the earth. A venue I love, the Piano Bar was a wasteland every night when it should be packed because of a guy that doesn't play very well, sings worse and appears to not to like people very much. At the bottom of the entertainment heap was a very good band, with lead singer so vocally challenged she dragged them to the bottom faster than one of the Zaandam's huge anchors. I really had to wonder if anyone in the corporate offices of HAL even bothers listening to the audition tapes. The other alternative is that they are trying to drive people into the Casino by having such limited quality entertainment at night.
Stuff to Do: While the daily program aren't as packed as the most of the recent cruises I've been on, the activities were well paced and interesting. The culinary demonstrations, lectures and computer classes blend well with the regular cruise ship fare of trivia, pool games and bingo. There is no reason to be bored if you want to get involved. A major plus was the Cruise Director Michael who was seemingly everywhere at once, with boundless energy delivered in an engaging and believable manner. The Captain joked at a function that Michael was the best Cruise Director in a 250 mile radius. Personally, I thought he was one of the best I've seen in 23 cruises.
Things I should have believed: No matter how hot it is in your part of the country or even in Seattle, be prepared and dress appropriately for chilly weather and rain, fog or drizzle. Remember even if it is 65 degrees (F) with the speed of the ship underway the wind chill on deck is substantial. Don't think I ever was not wearing fleece of some sort.
Ports: Personally the trip for me was about seeing Glacier Bay, and it did not disappoint. Imagine if the Teton's or Rockies had an Ocean at 10,000 feet and you were right next to them? It was magnificent. A Ranger from the US National Parks Service who appears not only to have a degree in geology but also drama narrated the trip. Despite his over to top moments of poetry, native flute interludes and asking us to spiritually become one with the Glacier, he kept us well informed of the history and conditions in the area.
I was reluctant to pre book excursions due to fluctuating weather conditions in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. A floatplane trip in the fog would not be my idea of fun. As for wild life watching, we saw so many Whales and Eagles from the ship that after a few days it became commonplace. I just got off the ship and wandered around without paying attention to the ships shopping guides, as they only include stores that pay huge kickbacks to the cruise line. If I had to do it over I would do the salmon bake in Juneau, which drew rave reviews.
What HAL does best in one word: Service. From the Officers to the people who clear the tables HAL gets it right. Here are a few adjectives I jotted down during the cruise: Friendly, familiar yet respectful, impeccable, smiling, seamless and gracious.
And in the end: A solid performance, more hits than misses and a comfortable platform to enjoy the sights of Alaska.